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Is anybody out there?

This was a questions I was definitely asking myself in the first few days of working remote.

The single hardest area I’ve had to deal with since our team started working remotely, is “asynchronous communication”. Up until that point, I’d thought this was something that just effected teams who were distributed over various timezones. I was wrong.

In a traditional office, synchronous communication is something we all take for granted. When we want to discuss something with a colleague, we get up from our desk and wander over to theirs, ignoring the inevitable disruption it causes. The trend in the modern office has been towards, even more, reinforcement of this behaviour. Open plan environments are now the norm. Gone are the corner offices and closed meeting rooms, replaced by sofas and games consoles. Inviting everyone to interact, instantly.

I’d go as far as to suggest, office communication, could be described as a selfish. Its all about pushing your own agenda, your own message at a time to suit you. We want something doing. We need answers to a question. Or in some cases just to hear the sound of our own voice. Either way we want it now.

That behaviour over time creates a feedback loop of instant gratification. Like Pavlov’s dog we hit a switch and expect our reward.

“If we ever do end up acting just like rats or Pavlov’s dogs, it will be largely because behaviorism has conditioned us to do so” — Richard Rosen

When you’re working as part of a distributed team the ability to fuel that instant craving is severely diminished. Yes you can utilise tools like Slack and Skype, but if someones offline they’re offline. Naturally you start to get feelings of withdrawal.

This is exactly where I found myself in the first few weeks of working remotely. As a business owner, you’re perhaps more addicted to this instant response than anyone else. The very fact you’ve employed a team suggests you cant do everything yourself, anymore. Which in turn means you need to collaborate with others to accomplish the vast majority of your goals. Here then lies the problem.

Suddenly you discover that your most creative time of the day might not match those of your colleagues

I’m telling you all this with 20/20 hindsight. The thoughts I had at the time were far more rudimentary. Where the hell is he / she? They should be online its 9am! Why are they offline in the middle of the afternoon? Etc etc. These are all the responses of someone who’s managed and worked in an office environment for decades.(way to make myself feel old) After all if people aren’t at their desks, then they’re clearly not working. Wrong!

“Stop managing chairs” — David Hansson

I should really have that quote laminated and hung on my wall. Its bad enough I’d read that quote, long before going remote, what makes things worse is I’ve been fortunate enough to have had several conversations with David over the years on this very topic. He’s got this rather frustrating ability to make complex things sound incredibly simple. This is one of them.

For those unfamiliar, its fair to say that David Hansson and his business partner, Jason Fried, have been a driving force behind the remote working “movement” for many years.

Their most recent book — Remote covers many of the issues we’re facing as a remote team, and is still serving as a road map for the future. I highly recommend it.

I’m honestly not sure what I had expected to happen at this point.

It seems rather obvious now, that when you give people freedom to choose how and when they work, they wont all choose the same window of time. Thats the great thing about hindsight.

What I knew at the time was, I’d had to adapt quickly to this new environment or, what was then a remote trial, would fail before it was even started.

The first thing I did was stop focusing on the hours people were working. You simply cant work that way when your part of a distributed team. Yes, I’m talking to you, screenshot monitoring software companies (yes thats a real thing)…… Remote is, above all else, about trust!

Don’t get me wrong, its not a case of just assuming people are doing what they should do. You need to provide clear direction and equally clear feedback.

Overall its become more about what people produce, rather than which part of the day its produced. We’ve got very strong teams at Serchen and LeadDigital and its times like this that you get to test that strength. Do you really trust them, or were you just saying it?

Turns out the trust was very real, and justified.

All of this didn’t help me with my more immediate issue of needing to collaborate on my own projects. This is something I’m still having to work on. I’m still the worst culprit in our company for Skype “attacks”. But compared to how I worked in our open plan office, things have really moved on a long way. I’m finding new ways to adapt my own personal workflows to fit with asynchronous working.

As a team we’re half way through month 4 or working remotely and continuing to learn something new about ourselves every day.

I’d really like to hear from others who are dealing with the same issues, and hear about solutions they’ve come up with — @jamesketchell

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